A few days ago I was rummaging through my stacks of books looking for something that I could sell on e-bay, when I came across a book I read a long ,long time ago. It is a book about how to write comedy. I bought it because I wanted to make money writing and thought that comedy might be a good way to break into the business. I know I read it thoroughly because it has those white lines that crack down the spine when you spread the middle pages wide and press down too hard.
Needless to say, my comedy writing career never took off; probably because I never wrote much comedy or submitted my work. I did, however, use some of the techniques from the book for other freelance writing jobs. Eventually, other pursuits filled my time and I wrote less and less. But somewhere inside, I’ve always had the desire to do a stand-up routine, not because I think I’m particularly funny or because I think I have fantastic stage presence, but because a stand-up comedy set absolutely terrifies me. My brain can hardly conjure a more difficult, awkward, or unforgiving public speaking predicament.
Performing a stand-up comedy routine officially replaces my previous public speaking goal, which was to preach a fire and brimstone sermon to a packed auditorium. Since I’m no longer a fanatical evangelical, I’ll skip that oratorial Armageddon in favor of the mic, spotlight, and brick wall at Helium comedy club in Portland Oregon where once a month they let wannabe comedians take the stage for a five-minute routine in front of a live audience.
To that end, the book that I rediscovered offers many fun, and sometimes galling, writing exercises for developing a humorous facility with words. The exercise that I’d like to share is the Tom Swifty. Tom Swifities are quotes followed by an adverb or adverbial phrase, which serves as the punchline to the quote. For example, “Pass me the shellfish,” said Tom crabbily. That’s not one of mine. Here are some of mine:
- “That girl with the strong jawline is beautiful,” said Tom gayly.
- “These prunes aren’t dry enough,” Tom said with aplomb.
- “This Chinese Chicken is delicious,” Tom said doggedly. (It’s not racist, if you laughed.)
- “Our paper comes out four times a month,” said Tom weakly.
- “These sticks of dynamite are duds,” said Tom explosively.
- “This is how you end sentences,” Tom said periodically.
- “I won the hotdog eating contest!!!” Tom said frank-fully.
- “Lord, bless our food,” said Tom gracefully.
- “July has ended,” Tom said augustly.
- “Smile you’re on camera,” Tom said in a flash.
- “I had to remove your cat’s behind,” Tom said with detail.
- “Don’t take me to the mothership!” Tom cried alienated.
- “My shirt has IRS W-2s silkscreened all over it,” said Tom formally.
- “I’ll have another hotdog,” Tom said with relish.
- “I’m a cardio-thoracic surgeon,” Tom said with heart.